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British Religious Leaders Appeal for Hostages' Release in Iraq

A fresh appeal has been launched for the release of four Christian peace activists held hostage by an obscure Muslim group in Iraq. The call comes in an open letter signed by 45 Christian and Muslim leaders in Britain and Ireland.

The appeal is for the release of four Western hostages from a group called the Christian Peacemaker Teams. The four men were abducted on November 26 in Baghdad.

Among the group is 74-year-old Norman Kember of London, a veteran peace activist. Also held are Tom Fox, a 54-year-old American; and two Canadians, 41-year-old James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden, age 32.

A group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade says it kidnapped the men to press demands for the release of all Iraqi prisoners.

In recognition of the demand, the statement from the religious leaders also condemns the practice of detention without trial of Iraqi prisoners, and it demands justice for those inmates.

A former president of the Muslim Association of Britain, Anas Altikriti, went to Iraq in December to work for the hostages' release. He says he discovered a lot of indignation about the abductions.

"This incident, it tarnishes the image of Iraq and Iraqis," said Altikriti. "There is this a very deep sense of anger that whoever has done this has not done this in the best interests of Iraq."

Altikriti says the kidnappers could actually help their cause by showing mercy to the captives.

"If the group of abductors are sincere in that they want the best for Iraq and the end of its misery and suffering, then they do that by releasing the hostages," he said. "We say them: 'By releasing the hostages you are by no means losing face, you are by no means losing pride, you are by no means losing political points. In fact, if anything, you will be scoring and winning political points.'"

Campaigners for the hostages say they have been heartened by the release of a video last month showing the captives alive and apparently unhurt. The tape was dated January 21.

In December, the kidnappers had threatened to kill the four Westerners if Iraqi prisoners were not released. A deadline of December 10 was extended by two days, but there had been no further word on their fate until the latest video.